2010 Records To Die For Page 2


J.S. BACH: Brandenburg Concertos 1–6
Richard Egarr, dir., harpsichord continuo; Academy of Ancient Music
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807461.62 (multichannel SACD/CD). 2008. Robina G. Young, prod.; Brad Michel, eng., ed. DDD. TT: 96:20

One of the first classical LPs I bought as a teenager was of the 1959 modern-instruments performances, by Sir Yehudi Menuhin and the Bath Festival Orchestra, of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. I literally wore that HMV album out; it left me with a love for what have been termed the greatest of all chamber-music works. As my tastes matured, I found myself increasingly attracted to "original instruments" versions such as Gustav Leonhardt's on Japanese RCA/Seon, the English Concert's on Arkiv, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt's on Teldec. But nothing had prepared me for the sonic assault and battery committed on these warhorses by the Academy of Ancient Music, led from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr. Not only do the musicians tune their instruments to A=392Hz—a whole step below the modern concert pitch of A=440, and equivalent to a modern G—but the valveless horns, in No.1 in particular, have a rustic, braying quality that is at first off-putting, then refreshing, and finally, with familiarity, essential. Also unusual is the use of a baroque guitar as an occasional continuo instrument, as well as the more familiar theorbo. Perhaps as a result of the low pitch, the balance between the treble recorder, oboe, valveless trumpet, and solo violin in No.2 is beautifully arranged. Overall, the sound (in two channels) is natural and unforced; the slow movement of No.6 is a delight in this respect. Yes, tempos are sometimes on the stately side—the first movements of Nos.3 and 4 and the finale of No.6, for example—but this set has been in constant rotation since I acquired it. (XXXII-7)

RACHMANINOFF: Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff
Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.3 No.2; Moments Musicaux, Op.16 No.2; Etudes Tableaux in C and E-flat major, Op.33 Nos. 2 & 7; Daisies, Op.38 No.3; plus arrangements for piano of works by Bach, Kreisler, Mendelssohn, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1909 Steinway D SE piano, as realized by Zenph Studios
RCA Red Seal 748971 (CD). 1921–1942/2009. John Q. Walker, exec. prod.; Steven Epstein, prod.; Richard King, eng.; Anatoly Larkin, Zenph consultant; Marc Wienert, piano tech.; Richard Shepherd, designer of SE reproducing mechanism. DDD. TT: 78:24

From the opening phrase of Sergei Rachmaninoff's arrangement of Fritz Kreisler's Liebesleid, originally recorded in New York City on October 25, 1921, and presented on this CD in stunningly good, if fairly close, modern piano sound (the engineer was the widely respected Richard King), this Zenph CD takes your breath away. It follows in the footsteps of Zenph Studios' first two SACD/CDs of "re-performances": Glenn Gould's 1955 Goldberg Variations, which I made our "Recording of the Month" for September 2007; and Art Tatum's Piano Starts Here, reviewed by John Swenson in September 2008. In all three, a computer was used to analyze the original recording and then, with painstaking massaging of the data by Zenph's Dr. Anatoly Larkin, to produce an enhanced MIDI file capable of controlling a Yamaha Synclavier or, in this case, a beautifully restored 1909 Steinway D fitted with a development by Richard Shepherd of Wayne Stahnke's SE reproducing mechanism. The program is presented twice: once from the perspective of an audience in the Kenan Recital Hall at Peace College, Raleigh, North Carolina, recorded with three DPA omni mikes; and once from the perspective of a performer, using a Neumann dummy-head binaural mike. The motive may be commercial, in that Zenph's "re-performances" of great historical recordings establishes a new copyright for the record company, but the musical results are impressive. As Robert Silverman once corrected me when I referred to Rachmaninoff as a "pianist," "If he were just a pianist, then they'll have to come up with another word for those of us who play the piano!"


Parlophone CDP 0946 3 82468-2-4 (CD). 1969/2009. George Martin, prod.; Geoff Emerick, eng.; Allan Rouse reissue producer. Alan Parsons, Tony Banks, asst. engs. AAD. TT: 47:26

NIRVANA: Nevermind
Sub Pop/DGC/ORG 032 (LP). 1991/2009. Nirvana, Butch Vig, prods., engs.; Andy Wallace, mix; Jeff Sheehan, James Johnson, asst. engs. AAA. TT: 42:39

After the usual racking of an increasingly feeble brain, followed by time spent pacing in front of shelves trying to ferret out yet another pair of super-obscure treasures, I sat and pondered which records really were the heaviest in my collection. Which ones really were the indisputable King Kongs? The stone classics that never grow old? Records from which so much else continues to flow?

Once I'd framed it that way, Abbey Road and Nevermind immediately jumped into my head and, despite my best efforts to knock them off their perch, held firm. The only problem was that I was sure that everyone and their mother had already chosen Abbey Road, and probably Nevermind as well, as R2D4s past. Turns out, much to my wondering eyes, that no one in the long history of "Records To Die For" has ever given Abbey Road the nod, probably for the same reason I almost didn't: they assumed it had already been done to death. And Nevermind had been honored only once.

Needless to say, with the much-improved sonics of its 2009 reissue, Abbey Road is even more glorious than before—if that's possible. A final burst of whatever camaraderie was left among the fabulous foursome, the album's set of tunes, some of them admittedly goofy, still make for one of the most consistent albums ever made. There's nary a bad song here. Favorites include the late George Harrison's exquisitely sexy "Something," Sir Paul's saliva-spewing howl in the sentimental mush of "Oh! Darling," and the portentous "The End," in which you can feel as well as hear the finality. The most astonishing, ascending run of creativity in the history of popular music had ground to a halt. The Beatles were over. (XI-2)

With its ironic title and unforgettable cover image, 1991's Nevermind was the beginning and the end. It begat Nirvana's brief run as superstars, and thus the pressures and emotional torment that eventually led to Kurt Cobain's suicide. It was also the end of something called The Great American Rock'n'Roll Album. We're still waiting for another. This kind of ecstasy and fury and rebellion and teen angst just hasn't happened since. The fact that this masterwork of loud/soft dynamics is so frontloaded with great songs—"Smells Like Teen Spirit" (the colossus of rock hooks), "In Bloom," "Come As You Are," "Breed," "Lithium"—means that the other seven cuts have been criminally underrated. And on any record less well endowed, the furious "Breed" would have been the star. In Utero may be darker and more polished, but Nevermind is solid muscle—and well-recorded enough to improve with volume. Nice Bernie Grundman remastering on 180 gram vinyl. (XV-6, XVI-2, XIX-6, XXV-11)


AMOS MILBURN: Booze, Babes, Blues & Boogie: The Essential Amos Milburn
Indigo IGODCD 2506 (2 CDs). 2002. Neil Slaven, compiler; Sound Recording Technology, remastering. Mono. AAD. TT: 2:15:31

Nearly forgotten today, Amos Milburn helped pave the way for rock'n'roll with stomping boogie-woogies and rhythmic ballads, and bridged the gap between blues crooner Charles Brown and Fats Domino. This two-CD set begins with Milburn's first recordings for Aladdin in 1946 and leaves off in 1951, in the middle of his string of drinking songs (omitting "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer," revived by John Lee Hooker as "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer"). Nearly all of Milburn's hits are here, from the rollicking "Chicken Shack Boogie" to the rueful "Bad, Bad Whiskey," but the hardest rocker is his non-hit version of the Will Bradley Trio's "Down the Road a Piece," a white-boogie takeoff that Milburn reclaims as an African-American anthem.

DOCK BOGGS: Country Blues
Revenant 205 (CD). 1997. John Fahey, prod.; Dave Glasser, Charlie Pilzer, remastering. Mono. AAD. TT: 69:03

The death-haunted blues ballads that the Virginia coal miner and banjo player Dock Boggs recorded in the late 1920s are among the most chilling in the old-time country repertoire. This CD contains all 12 sides Boggs cut prior to his rediscovery in the 1960s, plus five alternate takes, as well as four outstanding if unrelated tracks by the brothers Hayes and Bill Shepherd. Best are the eight titles from Boggs' 1927 debut session for Brunswick, including the ominously jangling "Sugar Baby" and the doom-laden "Country Blues," both of which appeared on the landmark 1952 Folkways compilation Anthology of American Folk Music. On "Down South Blues," Boggs transforms a 1923 recording by the classic blues singer Clara Smith into a hillbilly song, while on "Pretty Polly," he turns an 18th-century British murder ballad into a blood-curdling blues.


Keith Jarrett, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums
ECM 1276 (LP). 1984. Manfred Eicher, prod.; Jan Erik Kongshaug, eng. AAA. TT: 36:74

What's the record with the greatest recorded drum solo of all time? Keith Jarrett's Changes. Yup, strong words. If you doubt me, spin "Flying Part 2" until DeJohnette goes to town on his kit and becomes God. It's as if the world is about to end. The drums are simply in your room with thwacks, rim shots, kicks, and sweat that will flap your pants. If your system is dynamic and reproduces bass, this is demo-disc nirvana.

In the early 1980s, the trio of Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette turned their backs on the experimental movement and laid down some of the most straight-up jazz ever recorded. This album stands at the peak of that collaboration, with a timelessness that spans the expanse between bop and the unknown. If you value the purity of a jazz trio and want to hear what a drum kit would sound like live in your living room, look nowhere else. This is a masterpiece!

Warner Bros. MS 2093 (LP). 1973. Frank Zappa, prod., arr.; Kerry McNabb, eng. AAA. TT: 36:27

The Grand Wazoo is one of those anthem records that we (now) grayhairs once worshipped through headphones as our parents slept. Wazoo and its sister album, Waka/Jawaka, are indispensable cornerstones of the hippie era. While Zappa can't be forgiven for his attention-getting, it was his compositional genius that set him apart from songwriting guitar icons such as Hendrix, Clapton, and Harrison. Zappa's output at this time was part Edgard Varèse, part Miles Davis, part guitar hero: serious stuff for serious listeners. Wazoo is chock-full of jazz riffs, with muted trumpets, woodwinds, vibes, and even a gong tossed in. It's as fresh today as it was that first day in my bedroom basement, with homemade corner horns and Dynakit amps. If The Grand Wazoo has been gathering dust in your collection, get it out today and give it a spin. If you've never heard it—you're in for a treat! (X-8)


REVUELTAS: Orchestral Music
La Noche de los Mayas, Sensemayá, La Coronella
Enrique Barrios, Aguascalientes Symphony Orchestra Mexico
Naxos 8.555917 (CD). 2002. Bogdan Zawistowski, prod.; no eng. listed. DDD. TT: 61:38

Naxos's priceless Latin-American Classics series spawned a triumph with this disc of orchestral works by Mexican composing giant Silvestre Revueltas (1899–1940). Revueltas was a musical genius who went to extremes of both vision and alcoholism, and produced a powerful and singular body of work that seems to have swallowed Stravinsky whole, digested it along with all of Mexican folk music, and thrown in some personal demons. Revueltas's well-known Sensemayá is a dark, epic work of extraordinary orchestral color and taut suspense. Less often heard but no less potent are his film score for La Noche de los Mayas and the ballet La Coronella, both heard here in arrangements by other composers. The latter is a distillation of Revueltas's music for the revolution-themed films Vámonos con Pancho Villa! and Los de Abajo. The percussion- and brass-led finale of Mayas is some of the most brilliant orchestral writing of the 20th century. Barrios and his orchestra capture, as few on record have, this music's dark undercurrents and contrasts of playfulness and brutality, along with its distinctive traditional accents.

Heliodoro Copado, violin; Marcos Hernández, voice, huapanguera; Gregorio Solano, voice, jarana
Corason CO162 (CD). 2004. Eduardo Llerenas, prod.; Salvador Tecero, eng. DDD. TT: 55:05

The sones huastecas are a chunk of Mexican roots music unlike anything else on the planet. Propelled by the crisp, galloping, layered rhythms of the huapanguera and jarana, the singers sing in falsetto, vaulting the words up to the edge of space in alternating, interlocking stanzas of song. Between verses the violinist plies his art in unpredictable bursts of impossible speed and unlikely direction. It is a sound of extraordinary vitality—a music that defies the laws of physics as it lifts hearts and feet. Producer Eduardo Llerenas scoured Mexico for its greatest practitioners of sones, and found in Los Camperos de Valles arguably the truest, most acrobatic players of huastecas. Limber of voice, driving in their rhythmic underpinnings, and without parallel in violinistic invention, this trio possesses not only the virtuosity of this incredible regional style, but also its heart and soul.


Jimmy Smith, organ; Lou Donaldson, alto saxophone; Tina Brooks, tenor saxophone; Eddie McFadden, guitar; Art Blakey, Donald Bailey, drums
Blue Note RVG Edition 5 35587 2 (CD). 1958/2002. Alfred Lion, prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, eng., remastering. ADD. TT: 72:14

April 7, 1958. Just another convivial, relaxed, boozy Monday night at Small's Paradise, in Harlem. The sparse crowd, laughing and chatting, is into the music. But they don't know they are there for the best record Jimmy Smith will ever make. Certainly they don't know they are there for one of the few records the great, doomed tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks will ever make. Smith's Hammond B-3 shrieks maniacally and sings. Brooks's solos sound as if someone has opened a valve and released a natural source of subtle, graceful creativity that might flow forth forever. It was much less than forever, but at least we have Cool Blues.

GIL EVANS: Gil Evans & Ten
Gil Evans, piano, arr.; Steve Lacy, soprano saxophone; Lee Konitz, alto saxophone; Dave Kurtzer, bassoon; Louis Mucci, Jake Koven, John Carisi ("Remember" only), trumpet; Willie Ruff, French horn; Jimmy Cleveland, trombone; Bart Varsalona, bass trombone; Paul Chambers, bass; Nick Stabulas, Jo Jones ("Remember" only), drums
Prestige PRSA-7120-6 (SACD/CD). 1957/2003. Bob Weinstock, prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, eng.; Joe Tarantino, remastering. ADD? TT: 33:35

This all-but-forgotten masterwork—Gil Evans' first album under his own name—is a small vial containing strong magic. Only one arranger ever conjured these enveloping textures, these rich, complex colors, these long, curving arcs of elegant form. Solos by Jimmy Cleveland and Steve Lacy are set like bright jewels within the deep folds of the ensemble. It was the very first Prestige session recorded in stereo, but had been released only in mono until this 2003 reissue, in which the stereo session tapes, for decades presumed lost, are offered, quixotically and miraculously, on SACD.

John Atkinson's picture
Interesting thread on our website forum in response to this year's feature: http://www.stereophile.com/content/records-die-2

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

soulful.terrain's picture

Excellent to see the Complete Columbia Album Collection on this list.

xenomanic's picture

Hey Jon or anyone. I can't find the 20/20 album anywhere. I would settle for even AAC 256 files. There should be a place you can download it. Any ideas?

Olliecat70's picture

I live in Pinehurst, NC and I'm hving difficulty locating a store where I can purchase classical CD's.  Any suggestions?